On Wednesday 3rd August 2016, Emirates flight EK521 crash landed at Dubai International Airport. All 282 passengers and 18 crew aboard managed to escape the burning aircraft. 23 of those sustained minor injuries and one crew member was hospitalised for five days. Tragically, a fireman who rushed to the scene was killed when a fuel tank exploded.
It had been a routine and relatively short, 4-hour flight from Trivandrum International Airport in India to Dubai. As the Boeing 777-300 aircraft made its final approach for landing a wind sheer warning was issued. The pilots attempted to abort the landing and ‘go around’.
But their efforts to get the aircraft airborne again didn’t succeed. The plane slammed into the ground and slid along the runway where it eventually came to a rest. By the time the aircraft had stopped there was already a serious engine fire developing.
The Captain quickly ordered the evacuation of the plane as cabin crew rushed to open the exits and get everyone out via the emergency slides. But the evacuation didn’t go to plan. A chaotic scene ensued as the crew were hampered by defective equipment and a disregard for crew instructions by some passengers
A full nine minutes after the plane had come to a stop on the tarmac, the centre fuel tank exploded. Fire and thick, black smoke quickly spread into the passenger cabin as the evacuation was still underway. With commendable bravery, the Captain and purser were still desperately searching the cabin for anyone left behind.
Like all FAA certified aircraft, the Boeing 777 model is designed to be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. The decades-old standard was first introduced in 1967 and has been a benchmark for aircraft safety measures. Additional requirements were later added to make the evacuation as realistic as possible.
On top of the 90-second time limit, aircraft manufacturers also have to prove that a specified mix of ‘normal passengers’ can safely get off a plane when:
- The passenger cabin is in darkness,
- Only 50% of the emergency exits doors are used.
The Emirates jet was certified to this standard for up to 550 passengers to get out within 90 seconds with just 11 crew onboard.
So what went wrong during the EK521 evacuation? The initial accident report published by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), the UAE’s air safety body, paints a terrifying picture of the aircraft evacuation systems seriously underperforming.
The aircraft had ten emergency exits, all of which were fitted with escape slides. Five of those exits were never used during the evacuation, either because it was too dangerous to open the door or because wind affected the operation of the emergency slides. The other five slides were all blocked or unusable at different points throughout the evacuation.
The strong wind that was blowing through Dubai Airport at the time of the accident is believed to be the main culprit. But worryingly, the escape slides were certified to operate in winds that far exceeded the wind gusts on that day.
If that wasn’t problem enough, cabin crew had to contend with another issue that slowed down the safe evacuation of the cabin.
In an unusual move, the GCAA took the time in their preliminary crash report to specifically mention the behaviour of passengers during the evacuation. It noted that some passengers began to unfasten their seatbelts and stand up – even as the plane was still sliding down the runway. Then, some passengers grabbed their belongings as others screamed, realising the severity of what had occurred.
Of the passenger behaviour surrounding carry-on luggage the report stated:
“The cabin crewmembers followed the Operator’s safety instructions that prohibit passengers taking their carry-on baggage during an evacuation, and they instructed the passengers to leave their bags behind. However, several passengers evacuated the Aircraft carrying their baggage. Footage of the evacuation showed a number of passengers outside the Aircraft with their baggage.”
Mobile phone footage from inside the aircraft was widely seen around the world. The shocking video showed passengers blocking the emergency exit route as they looked for their luggage in overhead lockers. The actions of those passengers only changed when a member of cabin crew is heard screaming at them to evacuate.
Now, Emirates has taken heed from the GCAA’s report and the observed behaviour of their passengers. In the latest iteration of their safety video, Emirates has added a short but vitally important point. Blink and you might miss – but as the narrator explains the evacuation procedure, he calmly states:
“Remove high heeled shoes and leave all baggage behind if evacuating”
Very few airlines take the time to explicitly remind passengers that they should leave everything behind in the event of an emergency. This, despite evidence from a number of recent aircraft evacuations in which passengers have been seen to take carry-on luggage with them.
For now, the video has only been introduced for the Airbus A380 aircraft, though a revamped safety video for the Boeing 777 should be expected soon.
Clearly, the evacuation of EK521 was anything but usual. Initial evidence would suggest that the evacuation was seriously hampered by the emergency slides failing to operate properly. However, for investigators to call out passengers so publicly would suggest that more needs to be done to convince passengers to leave their personal belongings behind and to listen carefully to the instructions of cabin crew in the event of an emergency.